When New York Radical Women demonstrated against the Miss America Pageant in Atlantic City in 1968, they dropped an assortment of ‘instruments of female torture’ into a ‘trash can of freedom’ and garnered for the feminist movement the label of bra-burners. Nothing had actually been set on fire that day – the town, which was worried about its wooden boardwalks, had refused to give a permit – and the label was highly selective: in addition to the offending undergarment, the women dumped copies of Playboy and Cosmopolitan, eyelash curlers, false eyelashes, home perm kits, high heels, aprons, girdles, and items used in secretarial work, too. The epithet – coined by the feminist Robin Morgan as a counterpart for ‘draft-card burner’ – shows how deeply the women’s movement both was and was perceived to be about female sexuality. What was it? Who would define it, shape it, control it? Who were women’s bodies for? To many feminists, the brassière, which simultaneously confined, shaped and presented the breasts, represented culture, conformity, discomfort and subordination, while bralessness represented nature, rebellion, ease and freedom – never mind that many women found going without a bra uncomfortable and embarrassing.
It’s difficult to get back to that mentality, and not just because today bralessness has a different meaning, advertising that a woman is young, thin and lithe enough not to need one. The notion that there is or could be a ‘natural body’, unmediated by culture, now seems only slightly less quaint than the view that a unitary class of people called ‘women’ are forced against their will into awkward, unhealthy and demeaning beauty practices by a unitary class called ‘men’. We are all Postmodernists now, conscious of the manifold ways people find to claim, remake and strategically deploy the material offered by their cultures. In this light, almost anything a woman does can be seen as empowering, if not subversive – wearing a chador or going topless, having a facelift or embracing one’s inner crone, becoming a nun or joining the Klan.
The corset – fascinating, alluring, enraging – has been a beneficiary of this revisionism. In the standard view, shaped by 19th-century feminists, dress reformers and medical experts, the corset was a source of weakness, ill-health, mental debility, sexual and reproductive problems and even death, from which women were freed in the early 20th century by feminism and modern styles of dress. In E.L. Doctorow’s Ragtime, the down-to-earth free spirit Emma Goldman gently removes the corset of the famous society beauty Evelyn Nesbit, gives her a wonderful massage, and instantly transforms her from sex object to sensuous liberated woman. David Kunzle challenged this narrative in Fashion and Fetishism: A Social History of Corsets, Tight Lacing and Other Forms of Body Sculpture in the West (1982), arguing that the dangers of corsets were exaggerated or even invented. Women, he claimed, wore corsets because they combined two things not usually found in a single article of premodern female clothing: sexual allure and respectability. The small minority who were true ‘tight lacers’, enduring torments to achieve a wasp waist, were not addlepated fashion victims but sexual fetishists.
Valerie Steele is the scholar usually associated with the pro-corset position today. Her lavishly illustrated and charmingly written book, The Corset: A Cultural History, argues that the wearing of corsets meant different things to different women at different historical moments. Centuries of crusaders – divines, doctors, moralists, misogynists – exaggerated the physical dangers of corsets when what really disturbed them was that women were seeking attention through beauty and fashion and sexual display rather than settling down to their natural and God-ordained role as self-effacing mothers and household drudges. Most women used corsets to narrow their waists only (only?) a few inches, Steele claims, but even tight-lacing – subject of many medical warnings, sermons and humorous prints, not to mention the scene in Gone with the Wind in which Scarlett O’Hara, soon after giving birth, clings to the bedpost and urges Mammy to tug harder on her corset strings – was not as bad as all that. Steele collaborated with a fetishist called Cathy Jung and measured the effect of a year of daily tight-lacing. She determined that there was no serious or permanent damage: internal organs settle back into their normal places each night when the garment is removed. As for the pain and discomfort of going about all day unable to bend or take a deep breath, with your insides squashed together, steel slats and whalebones pressing into your flesh, rubbing against your skin, sometimes even snapping and piercing you – well, beauty hurts. (Jung, a hefty middle-aged woman who can reduce her waist to 17 inches, looks as if she is about to burst into tears, or perhaps just burst.) Steele challenges the view that the emancipation of women in the early 20th century got rid of the corset. Women continued to shape and compress their torsos with an array of rubberised garments – foundations, girdles, long-line bras – until the mid-1960s. Today, as she points out, fashionable women wear ‘invisible corsets’, the result of compulsive exercise, dieting, liposuction, breast implants and so on – while the corset itself, popularised by Madonna and beloved by the transgendered, has re-emerged as outerwear.
In Bound to Please, Leigh Summers acknowledges the complexities emphasised by the revisionists, but rejects their celebratory tone. A corset-burner, she still thinks that 19th-century corsets were instruments of oppression, a word she does not shrink from using. For Summers, the problem with doctors who railed against tight-lacing was not that they were misogynist prudes but that they didn’t go far enough. Few doctors urged women to abandon their corsets entirely because their fear of the unruly female body was too strong. Summers argues that women were indeed ‘slaves of fashion’, but this does not mean that they forced themselves into corsets out of vanity or folly or egomania. Fashion is not an autonomous realm of self-expression, but a manifestation of an unequal, gendered social order. Victorian women were trying to attract Victorian men, who prized the hourglass figure that few women naturally possess – the upthrust breasts and rounded hips divided by a tiny circular waist – but that made them seem both fecund and childlike, sexual and virginal, and above all controllable, as is suggested by the fetishising of the ‘handspan’ waist.
Like Steele, Summers is interested in the polysemous nature of the corset, its capacity to represent fashion, beauty, femininity and sex – some young girls fought their mothers for permission to wear them, much as girls today campaign for their first bra. But, particularly in the second half of the 19th century, it was also thought to provide protection from sexual pollution: female children were put into corsets to stop them masturbating and to guard them from paedophiles. Towards the end of the century, as sexual anxieties and misogynous views of women reached fever pitch, even toddlers were wearing them, and little girls in corsets were turning up in sadomasochistic pornography. Like the decorative covers on piano legs that served only to make the thought of human legs inescapable, the corset on children and teenage girls acted as an armour against sexuality that evoked nothing so much as sex.
Just about every aspect of the corset, Summers explains, depended on the eye of the beholder: moralists thought corset-wearing women scorned childbearing and household duties in favour of fashion and frivolity; but the garment also increasingly came to be associated with an acceptance of domesticity and maternity and a rejection of ‘mannish’ feminism. For its wearers, though, the appeal of the corset remained its combination of sexiness and propriety – it was, in a way, the quintessential Victorian object. A close-fitting corset produced physical symptoms that mimicked both sexual arousal and illness: panting, a rapidly rising and falling bosom, a flushed or pale complexion, the headaches and neuralgias which led to so many Victorian women taking to their sofas, and even the fainting fits that were such a dramatic feature of Victorian ballrooms. The corset etherealised solid flesh and enabled the plump and rosy to mimic the popular romantic ideals of fragility and delicacy. It gave thin, flat-chested women instant curves, which became increasingly desirable towards the end of the century, as the idea of women as sexual beings came back into circulation. At the same time it produced the smooth, sleek silhouette of a lady, at once reinforcing existing ideas of class (women were visibly either ladies or not) and undermining them. The corset market itself was minutely graded, from expensive models adorned with rich laces and ribbons for the well-off, to plain ones made of stout cloth for working-class women: there was one for every income, but they all produced the same effect. A Pretty Housemaid, guaranteed to produce a lady-like ‘tournure’, could be purchased for a few shillings.
To us it seems obvious that corsets did a body no good, but to the Victorians the case was less clear. As the century wore on, the corset was marketed as necessary for good health, a female exoskeleton capable of propping up, containing and defining a woman’s weak, soft, plump flesh, as if she were a human lobster. Housebound, unexercised, overclad and overfed, Victorian women, frequently pregnant and beset by small children, might well have felt they needed an extra set of ‘bones’.
Victorian doctors opposed to fashionable display were eager to attribute to tight corsets every ill from tuberculosis to breast cancer, and every deformation from overlapping ribs to split livers. Some of the effects associated with corset-wearing are clearly myths: women can’t possibly have had their lower ribs removed to increase the results of tight-lacing; some skeletons said to show deformation by corsets are now known to have been affected by scoliosis or congenital problems. Steele would probably find Summers too credulous here. Still, even Steele allows that putting children into corsets was harmful, though she thinks it was rarely done. Summers disputes this: the tiny-waisted look popular from the 1860s could be achieved only by ‘somatic bonsai of children, barely out of infancy’. As so often, this important question of cultural history turns on small pieces of evidence whose meaning and context are far from certain. Much has been made, for example, of a series of letters on juvenile corsets, published in the English Woman’s Domestic Magazine in the late 1860s. Kunzle thought they were produced by fetishists and by the magazine’s editors; Steele thinks they are sexual fantasies; Summers thinks that even if the initial letters were spurious, the flood of mail they evoked, some of it prurient but much of it sober and matter of fact, was genuine. Fourteen was too late to begin corsetting, numerous letter-writers advised. The waist was already ‘large and clumsy’:
One correspondent wrote that she had fitted both daughters with stays at the age of seven, the age at which she had been fitted for stays by her mother . . . Their purpose, wrote the author, was to create a ‘very slight pressure at the waist, to show off the figure and give it a roundness’, a physical attribute that seven-year-old girls do not ordinarily possess without mechanical intervention. The author recommended replacement stays as the child grew to adolescence. These were to be made a little longer and enlarged around the upper torso to accommodate the breasts but the waist size of the corset was not to alter, ‘in order that the original waist measure may be retained’.
The practice of footbinding springs to mind. Mothers who rejected this advice and were sorry later could always put their adolescent daughter into the Redresseur, a grim-looking article which laced both front and back and not only compressed the waist but forced the shoulders back by means of broad straps.
In Period Piece, Gwen Raverat remembered her sister, put into corsets at 13, running ‘round and round the nursery screaming with rage’, while Gwen took hers off and
endured sullenly the row that ensued when my soft-shelled condition was discovered; was forcibly recorseted; and as soon as possible went away and took them off again. One of my governesses used to weep over my wickedness in this respect. I had a bad figure and to me they were instruments of torture; they prevented me from breathing, and dug deep holes into my softer parts on every side. I am sure no hair shirt could have been worse to me.
Not surprisingly, an era which simultaneously eroticised womanly curves and childlike waists found pregnancy disturbing. Maternity corsets, elaborate Rube Goldberglike contraptions of straps, buckles, panels, laces and bones, had the dual purpose of supporting the swelling belly – some corsets even had painful-looking internal extensions to support prolapsed wombs – while also concealing it (something even respectable wives might desire, given that pregnant women were expected to give up their social lives when their bumps began to show). Summers speculates that some women used corsetting as part of a strategy of denial: tightly laced and buckled in, they would not feel the foetus quickening and could convince themselves they were not pregnant but suffering from a menstrual ‘obstruction’. Warnings that corsets starved foetuses of oxygen and crushed them could be counterproductive: women not only used corsets to hide an illegitimate pregnancy, but also to induce a miscarriage or stillbirth.
Sex or chastity, frivolity or sobriety, the promise of fertility or the concealment of its fruits, self-control or a self in need of control, the lady-like ‘tournure’ available to women of all classes – is there any other garment that has taken on so many conflicting meanings? The corset even came to symbolise the moral superiority of the West. ‘Are the mothers of men who rule the world found among the loose-robed women?’ Sarah Hale, the editor of Godey’s Lady’s Book, asked. The one meaning not associated with this flexible sign was physical strength. According to Summers, it was the burgeoning interest of girls and women in serious exercise, particularly gymnastics, that broke the corset’s spell. After 1870, numerous firms patented corsets purporting to help support the body during exercise: the Mey’s Helene had watchsprings instead of whalebones; the Dermathistic had leather facings intended to prevent bones from tearing through the garment under stress; the Anticorset Corset was less rigid than standard models. There were ventilated corsets and corsets with removable bones. But in the end there was no getting around the fundamental incompatibility of corsets and exercise, both practically and as ways of reading the female body. As the New Woman found ways to assert herself other than by having fainting fits, moralising doctors switched the target of their fulminations from the tight-laced social butterfly who heedlessly crippled her babies in the womb to the muscle-bound crypto-lesbian who wilfully endangered her fertility through vigorous activity. The source of the danger changed, but the danger remained women’s refusal to accept their destiny as little brown hens.
It’s a thrilling story and Summers tells it well. (It’s a shame her text is marred by typos – Mary Woolstonecraft? – and bizarre slips: Oliver Wendell Holmes was many things, but not ‘a late-century English novelist’.) It’s clear that, like their great-grandmothers, women today accept pain, constraint, deprivation and ill-health in order to look beautiful. Today’s ideal female body – thin, toned, narrow-hipped, with really big breasts – is as unlikely to be produced by nature as an hourglass figure with a handspan waist. And yesterday’s tight-lacers have nothing on today’s teenage anorexics, trading starvation tips on the Internet. At least you can take off a whalebone corset.